It’s officially an “emergency.” The Kern County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously last week to declare the local homeless problem an emergency and to give themselves new authority to deal with it.
Supervisors moved forward with their plans to build a 150-bed, low-barrier homeless shelter on county-owned land, north of Golden State Avenue, between M and O streets, to take at least some homeless people off the street. The shelter will include social services to help transition the homeless into more stable living arrangements.
The board’s emergency declaration allows the county to bypass normal bidding processes in order to fast-track construction of a $3 million facility they hope to open early next year.
Bakersfield city officials also announced last week their plans to build a similar 450-bed, low-barrier shelter on 7.5 acres of land, where the Calcot headquarters now is located, at Brundage Lane and Cottonwood Road. The cotton grower cooperative will relocate its headquarters to smaller offices. The city’s plan, which still must be approved by the City Council, also calls for the purchase of an adjacent 10 acres and the possible inclusion of a police substation on the property.
To some, these low-barrier shelters may be simply a strategy to shift a growing problem away from downtown to industrial areas, and to warehouse the homeless out of sight.
But to benefit the entire community, including the homeless, construction of low-barrier shelters must be part of an “all-hands on deck” comprehensive campaign that includes the efforts and support of government agencies, charitable organizations, businesses and residents.
We all must join forces to develop programs intended to provide the homeless with living facilities and rehabilitation services, while protecting area residents and businesses from related health hazards and to address the crimes homeless people are committing. The response requires the balance of compassion and “tough love.”
Bakersfield Mayor Karen Goh said it best when she noted that “we must move quickly to find solutions for those experiencing homelessness, elevate the quality of life for all people, and improve public safety.”
The fact that homelessness is increasing in Kern County, particularly in Bakersfield, is no surprise to anyone. We see more homeless people shuffling along our streets, with their belongings stuffed into grocery carts and backpacks. We see them sleeping in store doorways and tucked under bushes. They are panhandling, vandalizing, and strewing trash and human waste throughout the city.
There are many reasons for this increase in homelessness. They include drug and alcohol abuse, the closure of state hospitals and court rulings that pushed treatment of mentally ill people back onto communities, domestic violence, joblessness, and inadequate services for veterans.
A recent annual survey noted the number of homeless people in Kern County and Bakersfield has spiked, with an overwhelming majority of these people, including veterans, plagued by substance abuse.
It’s a tragedy worthy of our sympathy. It’s also is a threat to our security. And now it is a declared emergency.
Already, the City of Bakersfield has allocated funds from the 2018 voter-passed Measure N sales tax hike to hire more police officers, and to contract for private downtown security patrols and cleanup crews.
But if this difficult, long-term problem of homelessness in Bakersfield and its impact on residents is to be addressed, the county and city’s announcement of plans to build low-barrier shelters must be just the beginning of a comprehensive and strategic response.